March 19, 2009

 

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -There was once a time when Xavier was a small school from a small conference trying to gain credibility in the NCAA tournament.

Having made the tournament eight of the last nine years, the Musketeers can consider themselves established.

Xavier (25-7) opens its fourth straight tournament appearance Friday against Big Sky Conference champion Portland State in the East Regional.

The Musketeers are the No. 4 seed despite losing two of their last three, a seed that shows just how much of a reputation the private, Jesuit university has built.

"We know what to do. We know what to expect. We know that we're expecting to advance," forward Derrick Brown said."

Xavier reached the Elite Eight last year, the second time in five years the Musketeers have been a win away from the Final Four. Xavier has only been knocked out in the first round twice in its last seven NCAA appearances.

Xavier has been the state of Ohio's most consistent representative in the tournament this decade, getting a berth in all but two years. Ohio State can't say that, nor can Cincinnati, the Musketeers cross-town rival. Xavier has just a fraction of the enrollment of the giant state schools, but has been the most regular participant from the Buckeye State this decade.

Coach Sean Miller, who taken the Musketeers to the tournament in all but one of his five seasons, rotates freely and has a deep, experienced group of reserves. Forward B.J. Raymond, the only senior starter, plays only 30 minutes per game and is the leading scorer with an average of just 14 points per game.

"It's not one player averaging 25 points or anything like that," said Brown, who is just behind Raymond at 13.8 points per game. "It is a team. We've got young players and different players in different roles and I think that's why our program continues to be successful - because of the experience people get in all different situations."

Xavier lost its regular season finale to Richmond, then stumbled again in the Atlantic 10 semifinals against eventual champion Temple. But the Musketeers still got the at-large berth and No. 4 seed, just one spot lower than last year.

Portland State coach Ken Bone said he had been looking at Xavier footage all week and joked that he was open to any tips on where the Musketeers could be vulnerable.

"My assessment now is that their interior game and their exterior game is going to be a problem on both ends of the court. They're pretty darn good," Bone said. "They're just a really good, solid basketball team. I don't see any All-Americans on their team, but I see five or six extremely good basketball players."

Portland State (23-9) is in the tournament for just the second time in school history after repeating as Big Sky champs. The Vikings are seeded No. 13, a much better spot than the 16th seed they got a year ago when they were promptly sent home by Kansas, which went on to win it all.

"Last year we were just happy with the 16th seed," senior guard Andre Murray said. "Now, we're coming here hungry. We're looking to get a win."

Murray is one of four 3-point threats that led the Vikings to another Big Sky title, making 43 of 120. Portland State put up 814 shots from beyond the arc and 309 of them went in. Portland State made 12 of 31 3-pointers in a 77-70 upset of then No. 7 Gonzaga and expects to be making plenty of outside attempts again Friday against Xavier.

"If we hit our 3s, we're dangerous," said point guard Jeremiah Dominguez, a 5-foot-6 senior who made 44 percent of his 3-pointers this season. "It gives us a lot of confidence coming into the game."

Although the Vikings depend largely on the 3-pointer, they won the Big Sky tournament on a dunk to beat Montana State in the championship game 79-77. Portland State let a 10-point lead slip away in the final minutes, then calmly got the ball to Julius Thomas for the winning dunk with 3.5 seconds left.

The defending champions had plenty of poise, which they hope to carry over into the NCAA tournament.

"We've been in their seat before," Miller said. "You get to the tournament, when you get back, you want to stay in it longer."